August 4, 2014

In a rematch Miami-Dade commission race, Jean Monestime faces Dorrin Rolle

This time around, Monestime enjoys a massive edge in fundraising against Rolle, who lost in 2010 amid an ethics controversy.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Jean Monestime represents one of the poorest districts in the county, and his reelection effort centers on the help he says he has delivered during the past four years.

“This place was abandoned,” Monestime said of Soar Park as a squad of camp counselors organized a ballgame on a recent weekday morning. Home to a pair of idle buildings until 2013, Soar Park now has an active senior citizens’ center and a youth center. Monestime credits the turnaround to his influence as a member of the County Commission’s parks committee.

“It was a park in name only. You wouldn’t send your enemies into the bathrooms. It was pitiful,” Monestime, 51, said in an interview last week. “I said if that’s the best we can do, we’re in the wrong business.”

Four years after winning an upset victory against veteran commissioner Dorrin Rolle, Monestime faces a rematch against his old foe. This time, Monestime enjoys the perks, attention and campaign cash that incumbency brings.

The commission’s first Haitian American member, Monestime is running on his record of steering county money and resources into District 2, pointing to a string of new facilities, infrastructure projects and business expansions that, he says, would have languished without him. Monestime’s biggest achievement may be the $126 million in county funds secured for new sewage hook-ups across the county, including a commercial district off Northwest Seventh Avenue that currently relies on septic tanks.

Rolle, long the leading politician in a district that includes parts of Little Haiti, Liberty City and North Miami, hopes to ride buyers remorse of the rookie commissioner into a return to the seat he held for 12 years before leaving under an ethics cloud.

“Mr. Monestime has been an absentee commissioner,” Rolle, 69, said in a statement released by his campaign after the former commissioner declined an interview request. “The chief complaint lodged against Mr. Monestime is his lack of constituent services.”

Rolle said a priority as commissioner would be to reinstate programs for the needy, such as turkey and toy distributions during holidays. “I would like to expand on many of the successful community empowerment programs that worked so well under my long tenure,” he wrote.

As of mid-July, campaign reports show Monestime, a former North Miami City Council member, collecting almost $600,000 in contributions to Rolle’s $42,000. The 14-to-1 fund-raising gap gives the incumbent the kind of deep pockets needed to mount a formidable get-out-the-vote operation for the Aug. 26 primary.

Commission candidates face no opposition in November if they can win a majority vote in the primary. Rolle failed to do that in 2010, taking 40 percent against Monestime and four other primary challengers. Monestime picked up the anti-incumbent votes in the November run-off, and defeated Rolle 53 percent to 47 percent.

Monestime’s victory came as Rolle grappled with an ethics controversy over his tenure at the head of the failing James E. Scott Community Association, a social services agency funded in part by Miami-Dade County.

Rolle left JESCA in 2008, and the nonprofit agency went bankrupt in 2009. Rolle faced a string of county ethics probes accusing him of abusing his position as commissioner to steer county funds to his employer, and Miami-Dade still faces a $330,000 claim from the federal government over a housing grant to JESCA, a county spokeswoman said this week.

A third candidate in the current race, political newcomer Antwane “A.D.” Lenoir, has raised only $3,400. The campaign of Lenoir, who is pastor of the Westview Baptist Church, touts his opposition to red-light cameras along with his commitment to the broader goals of economic improvement and social services.

“Watching our incumbent, and our previous sitting commissioner, I have not seen any of the three E’s I’m concerned about: economic activity, economic stability and economic opportunity,” said Lenoir, 31.

In Rolle, District 2 had a jocular representative with a personality large enough that he had a catchphrase: “Ya done good.” Rolle also cultivated a lofty nickname he still uses in his current phone greeting, which last week said: “Please leave a message for Commissioner Dorrin Delano Rolle — better known as The Governor. Have a great day, and God bless.”

Monestime rarely raises his voice at commission meetings, presenting himself as one of the most soft-spoken members on the 13-person board. “I’m patient. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes that’s bad,” he said. “When you’re calm and collected, people may try to take advantage of you. Until you kick them in the rear.”

A Haitian immigrant who came to the United States alone at age 17, Monestime said he didn’t learn English until he left his home country. His first job was washing floors at a doughnut shop for $3.50 an hour in 1981, but he went on to earn a master’s degree in business administration from Nova Southeastern University.

A licensed real estate broker, he lists $10,000 in annual income from the firm he owns, Jemo Enterprises, and $50,000 from his commission stipend.

Then-Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed Rolle to the commission in 1998 after the prior commissioner, James Burke, was caught up in a bribery scandal. With a master’s degree in education from the University of Northern Colorado, Rolle made a career as a social worker and rose to prominence as director of JESCA.

His 2014 campaign financial disclosure shows $110,000 in yearly pension and retirement benefits plus $30,000 from a consulting firm he owns. In his disclosure form, Rolle lists a $48,000 yearly lease payment to Bentley Financial Services, the financing arm of the luxury car maker. Monestime said he drives a 2001 Mercedes-Benz.

In 2010, Monestime criticized Rolle for attracting large campaign donations from companies that did business with Miami-Dade. Four years later, Monestime’s campaign and an affiliated election committee have secured $582,000, probably the most money ever raised for a District 2 race. Monestime’s reelection effort has about $190,000 left to spend.

His top contributor is Landmark , a North Bay Village builder behind a commercial development at the abandoned Westview County Club, which neighbors opposed but Monestime shepherded through approval by the commission.

Monestime said the Rosal Westview project fits with his campaign promise of revitalizing the District 2 economy, which ranks at or near the bottom in most prosperity measures. About 27 percent of District 2’s residents live in poverty, according to a 2012 county study , compared to 19 percent countywide.

The district also is the least Hispanic in Miami-Dade (33 percent vs. 65 percent countywide) and the most black (59 percent vs. 17 percent countywide). Racial politics can still be tricky in the district: In 2010 Monestime accused Rolle of playing up divisions among the community’s African American and Haitian American residents.

Sean Foreman, a political science professor at Barry University, said the campaign-cash totals show Rolle has not mounted the kind of comeback some thought was possible when he filed to run last year. Even so, Rolle’s long tenure in the district makes him much more threatening than most underfunded challengers.

“Rolle was a seasoned politician, and you have to take his challenge seriously,” Foreman said. “I think if you ask the average person in District 2, they’re probably as likely to know Rolle as they are Monestime.”

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